DORIS ULMANN

THE SOUTH : KENTUCKY & WEST VIRGINIA



Doris Ulmann with her camera.

Doris Ulmann with her camera.

ARTIST BIOGRAPHY

Doris Ulmann was a native of New York City, the daughter of Bernhard and Gertrude (Mass) Ulmann. Educated at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a socially liberal organization that championed individual worth regardless of ethnic background or economic condition and Columbia University, she intended to become a teacher of psychology. Her interest in photography was at first a hobby but after 1918 she devoted herself to the art professionally. She practiced Pictorialism and was a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America. Ulmann documented the rural people of the South, particularly the mountain peoples of Appalachia and the Gullahs of the Sea Islands, with a profound respect for her sitters and an ethnographer's eye for culture. Ulmann was trained as a pictorialist and graduated from the Clarence H. White School of Modern Photography.[1] Other students of the school who went on to become notable photographers include Margaret Bourke-White, Anne Brigman, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, and Karl Struss.[2] Her work was exhibited in various New York galleries, and published in Theatre Arts Monthly, Mentor, Scribner's Magazine, and Survey Graphic. Ulmann was married for a time to Dr. Charles H. Jaeger, a fellow Pictorialist photographer and an orthopedic surgeon on the staff of Columbia University Medical School and a likely connection for her 1920 Hoeber publication, The faculty of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University in the City of New York: twenty-four portraits This was followed in 1922 by the publication of her Book of Portraits of the Medical Faculty of the Johns Hopkins University; the 1925 A Portrait Gallery of American Editors, and in 1933, Roll, Jordan Roll, the text by Julia Peterkin. The fine art edition of Roll, Jordan Roll is considered to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced.

In an interview with Dale Warren of Bookman, Doris Ulmann referred to her particular interest in portraits. "The faces of men and women in the street are probably as interesting as literary faces, but my particular human angle leads me to men and women who write. I am not interested exclusively in literary faces, because I have been more deeply moved by some of my mountaineers than by any literary person. A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face. For this reason the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life."

Ulmann's early work includes a series of portraits of prominent intellectuals, artists and writers: William Butler Yeats, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Sinclair Lewis, Lewis Mumford, Joseph Wood Krutch, Martha Graham, Anna Pavlova, Paul Robeson, and Lillian Gish. From 1927, Ulmann was assisted on her rural travels by John Jacob Niles, a musician and folklorist who collected ballads while Ulmann photographed. In 1932 Ulmann began her most important series, assembling documentation of Appalachian folk arts and crafts for Allen Eaton's landmark 1937 book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. In failing health, she suffered a collapse in August 1934 while working near Asheville, North Carolina and returned to New York. Doris Ulmann died August 28, 1934.

Upon Ulmann's death, a foundation she had established took custody of her images. Allen Eaton, John Jacob Niles, Olive Dame Campbell (of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina), Ulmann's brother-in-law Henry L. Necarsulmer, and Berea schoolteacher Helen Dingman were named trustees. Samuel H. Lifshey, a New York commercial photographer, developed the negatives Ulmann had exposed during her final trip, and then made proof prints from the vast archive of more than 10,000 glass plate negatives. (Lifshey also developed the 2,000 exposed negatives from Ulmann's last expedition, and produced the prints for Eaton's book.) The proof prints were mounted into albums, which were annotated by John Jacob Niles and Allen Eaton, chair of the foundation and another noted folklorist, to indicate names of the sitters and dates of capture.

The primary repository of Ulmann's work is at the University of Oregon Libraries' Special Collections. The Doris Ulmann collection, PH038, includes 2,739 silver gelatin glass plate negatives, 304 original matted prints, and 79 albums (containing over 10,000 Lifshey proof prints) assembled by the Doris Ulmann Foundation between 1934 and 1937. The silver gelatin glass plate negatives are the only known remaining Ulmann negatives. Of the 304 matted photographs, approximately half are platinum prints that were mounted and signed by Ulmann; the others are silver gelatin prints developed by Lifshey. Berea College hosts a collection of over 3100 images, primarily of the Appalachian region and the Berea area. Additional collections can be found at The University of Kentucky (consisting of 16 original signed portraits, and 186 original silver nitrate prints), and the New York Historical Society (primarily of prominent New Yorkers). As art objects, her photographs are also part of many museum collections including the Smithsonian and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Doris Ulmann was an extremely private person and left no documentation other than her images.


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Roll, Jordan, Roll

The question of Negro slavery—its origins, evils, economic value and ultimate consequences—has now evoked nearly two decades of searching reexamination. Since the 1950's no other question in American history has occasioned more lively controversy sweeping reinterpretation. The,, debate has tested new methods of discovering and weighing evidence; has moved into esoteric regions of social psychology, folklore, anthropology, econometrics and constitutional law; and, by reaching out for comparative soundings in other cultural and historical experiences, has broadened the very meaning of historical understanding.

The professional historians’ preoccupation with slavery cannot be dismissed as a faddish offshoot the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. Those struggles simply dramatized a point on which many black historians—and a few white historians—had long insisted: that the conflicts generated by slavery produced the only major class struggle and ideological rift in American history. The Civil War stands out as the Grand Canyon of our historical landscape not because it was the needless conflict of a “blundering generation,” but because its origins and consequences laid bare the terrifying substructure of American life, revealing the price that we and our forefathers have paid for our world‐envied success. The awesome scar has usually been romanticized as a noble wound. But for a society so dedicated to instant landscaping and to plastic surgery, our historical Grand Canyon has also provided an undeletable record, stratum by stratum, of the basic built social order.

Eugene D. Genovese was one of the first modern scholars to view American slavery in the perspective of world history. As a Western Marxist, influenced by Maurice Dobb, Eric J. Hobsbawm and, especially, by Antonio GI amsci, Genovese pictured the emergence of the Southern slavocracy as a reactionary, “seigneurial” challenge to 19th‐century capitalism. Although Genovese saw the slave systems of the New World as the unsavory offspring of Europe's lust for world markets and commercial profits, he also insisted that the relationship between master and slave was fundamentally different from that between employer and wage earner‐‐1‐so different, in fact, that slavery always tended to create a culture and way life antithetical to capitalism. Yet these seigneurial tendencies came to full fruition only in the American South, which was the only slave society to acquire ideological independence as well as economic and military self‐sufficiency. Between the revolutions of the 18th and 20th centuries, the Civil War thus loomed as the only serious challenge to capitalistic hegemony.

Genovese's previous work established hls own hegemony over critical segments of the historiography of slavery. But thus far his extensive writings have taken the form of preliminary and uneven essays. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is Genovese's long‐awaited magnum opus. It is also the most profound, learned and detailed analysis of Negro slavery to appear since World War II.

“Roll, Jordan, Roll” covers so much ground and presents such rich mixtures of information and argument that its theme cannot be summarized without some distortion. Genovese begins by describing American Negro slavery as a system of class rule and class exploitation distinguished by its racial form and by the complex and ambivalent relationships between slaves, masters and non‐slaveholding whites. For the slaves—as for the victims of most forms of oppression—the serious threats did not arise from the system's physical cruelty and material deprivations. Paradoxically, the worst dangers lay in the masters’ good will and collective conscience, or rather in the paternalistic ideology that shaped good will and conscience to the mas

The masters, even while affirming their own absolute authority, strove to convince the slaves of the moral legitimacy of the system. They shamelessly contended that all blacks were born to be slaves and that slaves were the mere instruments of their owners’ wills. Yet by playing the role of personal provider and protector, the slaveholder tried to prove his right to his slaves’ gratitude. American slaves, more than those in any other New World society, faced the peril of total dependency and loss of self‐respect.. The explanation, Genovese insists, is not to be found in the physical severity of the regime or, as Stanley Elkins has argued, in the lack of institutional restraints on individual self‐interest. Rather, the South emerged as the only New World society to develop a truly paternalistic culture and world view. And since the South was also the only New World society in which the black population rapidly increased through reproduction, its lack of dependence on imported labor from Africa deprived the slaves of continuing contact

But as Genovese proceeds to show in his remarkably sensitive reading of slave narratives, the slaves were never the passive, receptive instruments their masters wanted them to be. The slaves interpreted paternalism on their own terms and succeeded in redefining the limits of their masters’ power. In countless ways, paternalistic gestures evoked expectations and responses precisely the reverse of those intended by the masters: “By developing a sense of moral worth and by asserting rights, the slaves transformed their acquiescence in paternalism into a rejection of slavery itself, although their masters assumed acquiescence in the one to demonstrate acquiescence in the other.”

Genovese's great gift is his ability to penetrate the minds of both slaves and masters, revealing not only how they viewed themselves and each other, but also how their contradictory perceptions’ interacted. If the system cultivated self‐deceptions on both sides, the illusions of the masters were particularly dangerous. Convinced of the righteousness of their power, the slaveholders were tragically vulnerable to the traumatic discovery, at the time of the Civil War, that their slaves were not the grateful, submissive creatures they had imagined them to be, and that therefore the master class was not what it had imagined itself to be.

For ,Genovese, the “story” of slave life is a testament of the power and perseverance of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression. Largely as a result of their profound religious faith and affirmation of life, the slaves won their struggle to preserve some degree of individual dignity and of collective consciousness as a “black nation,” but at the cost of concessions that ill‐prepared them for the future. Ultimately the conflicts engendered by slavery could only be resolved by a destruction of the delicate checks and balances of the paternalist regime, including the checks that had restrained the racism of lower‐class whites by channeling it in support of slavery,_The collapse of paternalism thus prepared the way for a century of

“Roll, Jordpn, Roll” covers an incredible range of topics and offers fresh insights on nearly every page. Genovese takes. slave weddings and funerals as seriously as he takes the monstrous discrepancies in Southern slave law. He seems as much at home in slave kitchens as he is when discussing Afro‐American language, clothing and rhythms of time and labor. He is at his very best when he seeks to rehabilitate two of the most maligned and stereotyped figures in American history: the black Mammy and the black slave driver. This brilliant tour de force rests on an appreciation that the supreme test of paternalism hinged on those slaves who were accorded some measure of authority and leadership, and who, by mediating between black and white worlds, exposed the underlying absurdities of slavery.

The drivers, for example, proved that black slaves could manage production, rule their people and even make or break white overseers. The Mammy, as a diplomat, confidante and surrogate mistress of the plantation, dramatized the weaknesses and dependency of the whites. Yet Genovese convincingly argues that both the Mammy and driver occupied untenable positions, since they paid for their dignity and leadership by reinforcing the paternalist order. The tragedy of the Mammy lay “not in her abandonment of her own people, but in her inability to offer her individual power and beauty to black people on terrriF they could accept without themselves sliding further into a system of paternalistic dependency.”

Unfortunately, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” also suffers from serious flaws. The meaning of paternalism is devastatingly clear when Genovese discusses specific situations of dependency, accommodation and resistance. The concept becomes hazy when extended as a general historical category. Genovese seems to have retreated from the term “seigneurial” much as he earlier retreated from “feudal.” Yet he still equates paternalism with a “precapitalist” stage and thus with various preceding forms of feudal or semifeudal society. It is sufficient here to say that he has not moved far in clarifying the relationship between paternalism and capitalism. No doubt Southern paternalism was antithetical to capitalism in important respects. But Genovese's perceptive account of legal and social reforms within the slave system is only obscured by his insistence on their “precapitalist” characteristics. Similar reforms have strengthened ruling‐class hegemony, as he would be quick to acknowledge, in both capital

Genovese is masterful when he turns to social psychology, particularly when he demonstrates the concrete relationships between seeming opposites, such as cruelty and humaneness, ‘kindness and hate, or accommodation and resistance. He is at his weakest—as signaled by his prose—when he theorizes on the grand designs of history. His infrequent excursions into metahistory carry an orphic quality and are often marked by a pontifical tone. Occasionally he attempts to browbeat the reader by invoking without explanation some obscure authority (no doubt a legitimate one) and then delivering dogmatic and undeveloped generalizations. But then strain and bad shots always seem flagrant in a champion.

Nevertheless, Genovese's weaknesses cannot be dismissed as minor lapses, since they concern the development, integration and final resolution of his major themes. Paradoxically, it is not the loose Marxist framework that unifies “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” but rather conceptual source seldom associated with conventional Marxist theory—Christianity. The book's title comes from a slave spiritual; the text and chapter headings are studded with Biblical quotations. Genovese's key argument, clearly addressed with glee to agnostic liberals, is that religion provided slaves with stamina and selfrespect, developing into “the organizing center of their resistance within accommodation.” Genovese perceives the slaves’ religion as a complex blend of African and Christian norms, not as an idehlogy handed down from above. And precisely because religion served as the touchstone for both the masters’ paternalism and the slaves’ independence of soul, it became the major battleground'‐for psychological

Genovese acknowledges that this wellspring of spiritual, strength was better suited for survival against an oppressive regime than for effective political action after emancipation. His views on the psychologically crippling effects of slavery present a realistic antidote to Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's recent and much‐acclaimed “Time on the Cross,” a book which celebrates the slaves’ prodigious virtues as workers—seemingly as a way of resolving the conflicts that arise from the authors’ liberal indignation over the moral wrongs of a system ‘which, in its efficiency, productivity and material reciprocity, appears to meet all the tests of modern welfare

For Genovese, it was not the Protestant ethic but Christianity, even in the form of “diluted and perverted Protestantism,” which sustained the slaves: “Christianity offered to the oppressed and the despised the image of God crucified by power, greed, and malice and yet in the end resurrected, triumphant, and redeeming the faithful. However much Christianity taught submission to slavery, it also carried message of foreboding to the master class and of resistance to the enslaved.” Genovese deliberately ignores the tendencies within Anglo‐American Protestantism that developed into militant abolitionism, within the very “superstructure” of bourgeois capitalism, and which thereby, for the first time in human history, made slavery a serious problem. Nevertheless, his contribution to Marxist and radical history may well lie in his penetrating appreciation that a religious “superstructure,” while intimately related to the material conditions of life, is what gives life meaning and direction. He shows that it was precisely such meaning and direction that saved American slaves from the ultimate dehumanization.

September 29, 1974 | David Brion Davis


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